“I hate the term ‘upcycling,’” U.K.-based design expert Jermaine Gallacher says, as we discuss the appeal of living with thrifted decor in our spaces. “I call it ‘jazzing up.’”
Whatever term you use, it’s a practice that’s becoming increasingly popular as sustainability awareness, inflation, supply chain issues and an eternal yearning for individuality provoke us to take another look at old items and give them a second lease on life.
But demand for antique and vintage furniture has jumped as we’ve spent more time in our living spaces building up the desire to redecorate, and prices for pieces found at specialty retailers are rising. When a vintage furniture find like a Togo sofa goes for thousands or achieves viral status on social media (see, also, mushroom-shaped lamps), shoppers craving that elusive balance between affordability and uniqueness have to start digging a little deeper. So how do you elevate the look of thrift store decor?
Gallacher says he grew up loving the thrifter’s thrill of the hunt. “I was always rooting around for stuff, actually, even as a child,” he says, extolling the abundance of retailers selling used goods in his hometown of Brighton. After moving to London at 17, Gallacher ran a stall in Spitalfields Antique Market and honed a singular aesthetic that’s best described as Dada-goes-medieval. Today, he shares his sense of style via original furniture pieces and interiors plus an advice column in the Evening Standard.
“An item that you find might not be perfect, but you can make it perfect, or near perfect, or something that you want,” Gallacher says. One key to thrifted decor success is thinking more like a dealer than an end-consumer; that is being able to look beyond what something is now to see its potential. “Even when we’ve got big budgets, I still like to have a DIY element that’s sort of homespun.”
Gallacher’s must-have tools for tweaking thrifted finds include high-gloss paint and masking tape. “I like taping things off and painting on patterns. And slopping gloss around makes something look so expensive,” he says.
For shoppers less-inclined to get crafty, you can still find great furniture and housewares that don’t require it – or, more likely, have flaws you can live with. Many designers and vintage vendors will say that removing the patina from a big-ticket piece is the worst thing you can do. Likewise, considering the character of a thrift find before changing it is equally important.
While digging through a thrift shop for treasure might only seem like a pleasing practice for maximalists, those more inclined toward cleaner interiors can find a sculptural ceramic or simple glass vases to lend interest to an empty space. A small grouping of similar pieces is the perfect thing to have on your thrifting shopping list. It’s a subtle interior addition that you can assemble over time with inexpensive finds.
Tiffany Leigh Piotrowski, an interior designer with a Barrie, Ont., based firm, says that integrating older pieces, no matter the pedigree, adds undeniable warmth to a living space. “Now that we’re moving into a lot of full home renovations or new build projects, I set the expectation right at the beginning that for us, it’s really important to incorporate some character pieces into a new home just so that it doesn’t feel too cold and sterile,” she says. “We want our homes to feel layered and lived in and loved and like home; we like to design a space that feels like it’s been put together over time.”
This decor philosophy took root as Piotrowski scoured markets with her mother when they lived near St. Jacobs, Ont., and she continued to cultivate her passion for preloved interior pieces throughout her design work. “One of the first pieces I ever got was for my first apartment,” she says. “When you walked in, there was such a narrow hallway but I needed something for that space. I found a vintage bamboo hall tree that had a mirror and a drawer and hooks and a little shelf for your shoes.”
Piotrowski became so enamoured with the piece that when she bought and renovated a Sauble Beach, Ont., property, she moved it there. “I just sold that property fully furnished, but the one thing I told them they could not have was the hall tree; now it’s in our office here at the studio,” she says. “That’s a piece that’s seen me through many phases of my life, and I think I paid $100 for it.”
While a thrifted find might not have the historical provenance of more expensive antiques, that anonymity invites not only curious speculation about its past, but the ability to add it into our own personal story with no strings attached. And how you found it can be a great introduction to that tale.
“I’ve had more than one person say to me that they find it very therapeutic to just be able to go and lose yourself in the racks and the shelves,” says Nicole McPherson, vice-president of Canada field operations at Value Village. “It’s people coming in to shop for cookware or bakeware, and then there are others coming in to find items that they can repurpose into something else, which, to me is the most fun.”
McPherson points out that building up your comfort with thrifting home items is a pathway toward developing more sustainably minded shopping habits. “It’s a section that people just really enjoy shopping and can be considered a kind of a gateway category because people who maybe aren’t sure about thrift find that’s an easy place to start with,” she says. “Once they get into the store and they start to see what other things are available, thrifting then becomes an alternative for them that they hadn’t considered before.”
When sofas from Salvation Army start popping up in Architectural Digest (as one did in a story on the beachy upstate New York living room of actor Nico Tortorella), it’s clear that old ideas about finding great decor at the thrift store are shifting.
As Value Village’s McPherson notes, it’s “where you get a chance to really do your own style and create a space that is completely original to you.”